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Remembering Mick O'Donnell, handball man to the core

A year and a half since Mick O'Donnell passed on, Paul Fitzpatrick remembers a great handball man.

One thing that handball does not do well is honour those who have left us. Players, even champions, drift away and are forgotten all-too-soon.

That feeling deepened during the pandemic. Almost all handball activity was suspended; players weren’t meeting up as regularly, there were very few competitions.

In the middle of that, in the summer of 2021, Mick O’Donnell passed away.

I first met Mick outside the handball alley in Virginia. It was a Saturday afternoon and the place was locked up. I pulled up outside, intending to go in to the alley on my own to hit the ball around and there was this stranger outside. A big man, swarthy but greying, broad and with a glint in his eye.

“What time are the games starting?” he asked me.

As it happened, there was a programme of handball matches fixed for Virginia the following day. Mick had got his dates mixed up and arrived a day early, driving down the road from his home in Dublin just to watch some junior and Masters matches. Apart from friends or family and local handballers, he’d likely have been the only spectator there, which said a lot about his almost child-like passion for the game.

One year, I was playing doubles with Cormac McMahon. We arranged a training game against Mick and his partner, Conor Maxwell, who were preparing to play in the Masters championship. It was a great battle so we stuck with it; once or twice a week, we would go to Dublin and take them on in Na Fianna or Croke Park.

One of the great things, I think, about the big alley is that it’s not as taxing on the body as other forms of the game. Players can still operate at a good level well into their 50s and beyond, especially in doubles, where the craft learned over the decades comes to the fore.

We had brilliant games. Sometimes we won, sometimes they won. There was a competitive edge to them but it was fun, too. Conor and Mick were an unlikely pairing but had a great chemistry.

Mick liked a pint. He’d tell us, with a grin, about a great session he had enjoyed - and a resulting hangover he had endured. Maxwell would roll his eyes and tell him to grow up, winking at us before he said it. O’Donnell would tell him he was soft, that he wasn’t able to drink himself. Innocent craic.

I thought of that craic when the shocking word emerged that Mick was gone. He was in his early 50s. I could not believe it.

Mick’s funeral took place in Maynooth and he was buried in Laraghbryan Cemetery, a beautiful ancient graveyard in the shade of a ruined stone church. This was still Covid times; numbers were limited to 50 but a large crowd turned out along the route to pay their respects.

Mick hadn’t been playing much at the time. Indoor handball was suspended, more or less in its entirety, for nearly 18 months back then and there was no sign of it returning any time soon.

Like all sports, handball has many strands; it is a sporting outlet and a social one, a distraction from real life. In common with other sports, we love to talk about ours, to reminisce, to speculate about future matches. Handball may be hidden away in a sense but those who love it, well, they really love it. Once you gain entry to this secret society, you are usually in for life.

But the thread that binds it all together is the actual playing of the game. A sport cannot sustain itself if it cannot be played.

So, around the time of Mick’s sudden passing, handball players were fairly despondent, wondering when they could go back doing what they love to do, afraid of the impact this extended suspension would have on the game in the future, whether our young boys and girls will drop it in favour of sports they are actually allowed to play.

In the middle of this all-pervasive gloom, this small sporting community was rocked by the news of the sudden passing of this genial, friendly man who was steeped in the game.

Online, the comments flooded in.

“Can’t believe I am seeing this! You could meet Mick in any court, any night of the week just to watch a game... he really did love the game,” read one.

“Shocked and very saddened to hear this. Played Mick first in a Leinster singles match quite some years ago and had great enjoyment and laughs playing 60x30 with him in Croker,” said another.

Read a third: “Still in shock over this news. Mick was a pure gent and gave me many a tour of the handball courts in Croker. He will be sorely missed.”

There’s something about handball that attracts all sorts of characters. I don’t know what it is but in our game, we have many distinctive personalities - some eccentric, some hilarious, all unique. Some handballers, I feel, are sort of sporting misfits who found a game where they could slot right in. I mean this in an affectionate way, I should clarify.

There is no doubt that there is something almost Corinthian about our sport. Nobody, not even the legends of the game, are in it for glory or acclaim. Some excel and win titles; most of us play because we love it and because of the people we meet and the friends we make. Handball could take you anywhere.

Mick O’Donnell never won any senior medals or made it on television or on the back page of the national papers. He played handball because he enjoyed it, because he liked to compete and because, I suspect, it was a place where he fitted in; people liked him.

Now that handball is finally back in full swing, the courts around Dublin and north Leinster in particular will be much quieter than they were before the pandemic, when O'Donnell was liable to land in, full of fun.

Mick was a throwback sort of man in a throwback sort of sport, a character in a game full of them. His big, booming laugh and his patented killshots in the right corner are greatly missed.


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